England’s Premiership clubs are to hold an emergency meeting in London on Thursday to discuss their future involvement in European competitions.
The move comes after France’s Top 14 clubs appeared last week to scupper plans for an Anglo-French ‘breakaway’ event by insisting they would in fact remain loyal to the existing European Cup, with the proviso that English clubs also competed in the European Rugby Cup (ERC) competition.
Thursday’s meeting will feature senior representatives from all 12 Premiership clubs, plus Bristol and Leeds who remain shareholders in Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL), the umbrella organisation that oversees top-flight rugby union in England.
“The meeting will look at the future of European rugby and the future of English clubs in European rugby over the next five years,” a club source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
“It’s in addition to PRL’s usual two meetings a year and I cannot exaggerate how important it is,” the source added.
“The clubs’ view needs to be taken into account – this is not just about what Mark McCafferty (the PRL chief executive) or PRL thinks.”
The future of the flagship European tournament had been thrown into doubt when English and French sides drew up plans to launch a rival Rugby Champions Cup from the 2014/2015 season.
But last month the national unions of France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales said they would stick with the European Cup in its existing format – leaving the English Premiership out on a limb.
And last Thursday there was a major shift in the French clubs’ stance following a meeting of Top 14 presidents at Orly Airport near Paris.
The French National Rugby League (LNR), in a statement after the ‘Orly summit’, made plain they were still in favour of the breakaway Rugby Champions Cup, but only from the 2015/16 season.
“Given the amount of work that has to be done to set up the new format from the 2015/16 season the notion of a period of transition of one year…is a valid one,” the LNR explained.
LNR president Paul Goze added: “French clubs can get involved in competitions run by the ERC (in 2014-15) on condition that all the deals are signed and that the competition will be staged with clubs from England.”
PRL had been vehement in its opposition to having anything more to do with ERC-run tournaments.
But a breakaway competition without French clubs is all but inconceivable.
And, with the prospect of no English teams playing in Europe for the first time since the 1998/99 season now on the horizon, McCafferty appeared to be willing to strike a compromise deal last week when informed of the French U-turn.
“If somebody can outline what that transition would entail, how the issues would be overcome and exactly what the new structure in 2015/16 would be, then we could look at it,” he said.
English and French clubs have long complained that Pro12 sides have an unfair advantage in European competition as most of them are guaranteed entry, whereas Premiership and Top 14 teams have to fight hard just to qualify.
The dispute has also been complicated by a row over broadcast rights.
PRL have signed a television deal with BT Vision worth £152 million (178 million euros, $246 million), with £52 million earmarked for European competitions.
But ERC insist they will stand by current broadcast partners Sky, with a contract agreed until 2018.